There is some legislation both UK and EC covering the sale and supply of essential oils. Increasingly E.E.C. legislation is replacing our own, but that is the subject of a different article. However, not all of these regulations apply to every trade that needs to use essential oils in their products. The definition of what can, or can not be supplied, or used, rests largely with the intended final use of the essential oil concerned.
As far as Medicinal use is concerned, most people should by now be aware that most essential oils may not be retailed for treating specific health problems without a medicines license. What constitutes 'medicinal use' is clearly defined under the UK 1968 Medicines Acts as well as in several pieces of EEC law.
It is important for our trades future to examine the differences between:
1. illegal sale.
2. Inadvisable or unethical sale.
The only essential oils that are prohibited for resale to the public in the UK under the 1968 Medicines Act are: Chenepodium (American wormseed), savin oil and croton oil. These oils may only be distributed to the medical profession from licensed pharmaceutical premises. Despite those restrictions having been in place since 1968, well-known companies in aromatherapy were selling American wormseed oil openly until about 3 years ago. It was left to me to inform the Medicines Division of their activities and the MCA put a stop to it. So much for trade self regulation!
Another oil that is 'effectively' banned in cosmetic products is sassafras oil. By 'effectively' banned this is because the E.E.C. only permit safrol in products at below at 100 ppm. Since raw sassafras oil contains about 870,000 p.p.m. of safrole, this means that in aromatherapy you would have great difficulty in diluting the oil to a safe and LEGAL level of use.
There are a fair number of essential oils that represent significant hazards if inappropriately used by a member of the public, or a badly trained therapist. Therefore we need to examine the wisdom of whether such oils should be supplied at all, or if, provided they are ethically marketed, potential risks are slight.
In the case of aromatherapy where skin application is likely, then my belief is that it is unethical to market and supply any know hazardous essential oil without appropriate warnings. I am here thinking about oils like expressed bergamot, benzoin, cinnamon bark, expressed lime, verbena, etc. In such cases the safety data is crystal clear, such oils should not be applied to human skin. This safety data is backed by International research organisations such as RIFM and IFRA who advise their large member companies on safety issues of raw materials.
The legal position of anyone that supplies, or uses such oils without appropriate warnings requires examination. There is little doubt that if someone used an essential oil with well-documented hazards, in the volume that is the norm in aromatherapy, and then their client suffered from a side effect. Such a client would have an extremely powerful legal case to argue. If the harmed individual can prove that a major research organisation such as RIFM, has advised the large fragrance companies against the use of such materials for many years. A court might deem it unreasonable, for an aromatherapy supplier to sell such material without adequate warnings. It would probably also be deemed 'unreasonable', for a therapist to use the material contrary to the practice of the International fragrance trade that DOES understand safety issues. In my opinion if they did this, then their insurance company would very likely refuse to stand by them and cover any subsequent damages awarded.
Unfortunately there are still companies in the aromatherapy supply business, that supply such hazardous products without any significant warnings, and many others whose warnings are inadequate.
Some suppliers try and hide behind their policy of only supplying hazardous oils to "trained therapists". Well, as someone who has been deeply involved in publishing and teaching on safety issues for many years, I can tell you that policy is utterly fallacious. The fact a therapist is trained in our industry most certainly does not mean they have been equipped with adequate safety data. If they had been, then the oils I mentioned above would not have formed part of the tuition requirements of many aromatherapy courses for years.
The people in aromatherapy who promote the use of essential oils that have well-documented side effects, often try and hide behind "well we have used this oil for 20 years and never seen a problem". My arguments against this are as follows:
1. Aromatherapy does not have a centralised data collection system such as the yellow card system used by doctors. Therefore no one is certain of the percentages of clients and therapists that get adverse reactions to essential oils.
2. The huge majority of aromatherapists do not treat enough people to be able to obtain accurate statistical information.
3. If a client has a mild adverse reaction following a massage, the chances are they simply will not go back to the therapist concerned and so the reaction is undocumented.
4. Adverse reactions to essential oils do indeed occur, but are mainly to the therapists themselves. I have had several aromatherapists contact me for advice about a variety of skin problems caused by essential oils. In at least two cases they have undergone clinical dermal sensitisation testing that confirmed sensitisation to certain oils. Such cases rarely get reported to the trade associations and so again statistical data is being lost.
5. Others promote the use of hazardous oils because "medical doctors in France use it all the time". They simply fail to appreciate that registered doctors in most countries are legally free to use whatever substance for their patients that they wish. Aromatherapists are not registered doctors or anything like adequately trained in clinical medicine. Yet despite that, some aromatherapists do a little training with these doctors in France, or take courses run by such people in this country. These aromatherapists then go away and merrily start using essential oils in the same manner that the Doctor has shown them, without a second thought about their own legal position in the UK. Don't be fooled by thinking your insurance policy covers you. Insurance companies are notorious for trying to get out of paying a claim in any way they can. If there was the slightest hint that you had done something contrary to "accepted trade good practice" they will use that to get themselves off the hook.
6. In certain cases such as the application of verbena oil to the skin, the adverse effects are unequivocal. If aromatherapists have used so called 'verbena' oil regularly and seen no adverse reactions, then the question must be asked "were they using pure, natural, unmodified verbena". I would bet the answer is no, despite what the supplier/s says.
I deem it unethical to sell to the PUBLIC any essential oils with well-documented side effects, without providing scientifically verifiable and clear safety information.
I deem it inadvisable to sell the same oils to aromatherapists without clear concise warnings.
I deem it unethical to sell to anyone for skin application, essential oils that have not undergone Internationally acceptable safety testing procedures, especially dermatological studies on humans. I deem it scandalous, when such untested oils are promoted and sold for internal consumption. I can only accept such sales when clear instructions are given that the product should not be used on the skin or internally. In this category we mainly have the seemingly unceasing supply of so called 'chemotype' oils, which have only been used by a mere handful of people compared with our tried and tested oils.
I believe that only totally unscrupulous traders will have oils like cinnamon bark, rue, sassafras, tansy, thuja, verbena, etc. available in the same lists that they supply to aromatherapists as well as to the public. The uses for these hazardous oils in aromatherapy are insignificant compared to their potential to cause severe harm. There is nothing wrong with some of these oils being sold to people such as candle manufacturers, to other trades where the resulting products are safe, or for their use in oil heaters. However, such customers should in my opinion, have totally separate price lists. (not a difficult thing to do in this age of computer word processing).
The mislabelling of essential oils for financial gain is quite common. Instances that I can immediately think of are:
CHAMOMILE MOROC. Often labelled just as "Chamomile oil". This particular oil was originally only sold to the fragrance trade, and yet despite that, it has not undergone Internationally acceptable safety testing. It has no verifiable medicinal uses, or traditional uses worth talking about. Its chemical profile is substantially different from our well tested and tried Roman chamomile. Why did it find its way into aromatherapy then? Because a few years ago it was half the price or less of Roman chamomile and big profits could be made by selling it as "chamomile".
LAVANDIN sold as LAVENDER. Believe me there are plenty in this trade that will argue that there is nothing wrong with that. Some years ago I paid for oil to be analysed from a well-known company that was new to the field at the time. Their oil sold as "lavender" was in fact lavandin. Yet they had a well-known aromatherapy figure advising them. Oh, perhaps it was a packing error !! The fact is they are two significantly different essential oils. Only a few years ago, lavandin was sold on the commercial market at a far lower price than genuine lavender. That is the ONLY reason that the oil was sold as lavender.
PATCHOULI. Available from the large suppliers in a number of grades. Some years ago, I paid for analysis of the oil supplied by a small aromatherapy school who "ONLY SELL THE FINEST GRADE OILS FROM FRANCE". What was this fine oil-around 40% gurjun balsam, something that the REAL essential oils trade would consider the LOWEST grade patchouli. This company were promoting their products to nurses for use on ill people. It might be safe, but I don't know, and what about all their other oils. Unfortunately I could only afford the cost of one oil to be analysed. According to their own literature, all their oils were carefully analysed, I can only presume they meant by the firm that MADE THEM.
ROSEWOOD. The little genuine rosewood oil that is around, is probably illegal. This is because the rosewood species that have been used for logging and oil are classified as "endangered species" under International agreements. To get round this, traders are labelling the essential oil from the LEAVES of the trees as "roseWOOD oil". How can an essential oil that traditionally has been extracted from the heartwood of a tree, be sold as a WOOD oil when in fact it is a LEAF oil. In my view that is like saying that petigrain oil is the same as neroli, "well it all comes from the same tree doesn't it" what do you think?
YARROW. Another essential oil that has not undergone formal safety testing. So why is it used in aromatherapy? Because it was half the price or less than German chamomile. Because ill informed aromatherapy teachers and chemists presumed that because it contains a lot of azulene's, that its activity will be similar to German chamomile. Because it is cheap, it is used to 'extend' genuine German chamomile. Therefore if an oil is labelled as "pure German chamomile" it is obviously not genuine, may have unknown effects on the skin, and may not work for the conditions you want to use it for.
YLANG NO. 2 or 3 or mixtures, sold as Ylang no. 1. Oh yes very common that one. Few aromatherapists in their training are exposed to the smell of the different grades and qualities of essential oils, so you can't always rely on your nose.
These are just a few examples of misdescription of essential oils
which can significantly effect what you intend using them for. This
of course does not even begin to attend the problem of synthetic chemicals
and solvents added to essential oils.
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For readers in the USA and Canada, please be aware that the regulatory situation varies considerably from what was described here 15 or more years ago, and probably differs considerably even in the EU.
In the USA, the FDA essentially treats essential oils as a cosmetic item. The only regulatory issues that I am aware of involve product safety (requiring childproof caps on the bottles for some oils--birch and wintergreen in particular) and the making of medical claims.
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